The Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off a major trade today, acquiring Left Winger Scott Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for forward RJ Umberger and a 4th round pick in next year’s 2015 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft.
Umberger was the subject of trade speculation since being a healthy scratch for four games over a seven-game stretch during the Blue Jackets Stanley Cup playoff run. Umberger was also scratched for the first two games of the Blue Jackets 1st round Stanley Cup playoff series against his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins. After the season had ended, it was revealed that Umberger was frustrated with the benching by Blue Jackets Head Coach Todd Richards and went to Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen and Team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson to request to be traded.
It was becoming readily apparent that Umberger didn’t fit with the direction of the Blue Jackets organization, one that Kekalainen envisions as a young, north-south, gritty team with plenty of speed and youth. Additionally, Umberger’s production has dwindled during the past three seasons, going from averaging 56 points a season from 2009-11 to averaging 34 points per season, assuming you extrapolate the lockout-shortened season as well as giving consideration to registering 20 points during his last 12 games of the 2011-12 regular season when the Blue Jackets cemented the NHL’s worst regular season record.
While a sound offensive player, particularly on the Power Play, Umberger wasn’t the swiftest skater and was often streaky and inconsistent and didn’t seem to grab the mantle of being the Blue Jackets team captain, something that the local fans seemed to think was a ‘done deal’ for the former Ohio State Hockey player. However, his scoring struggles seemed to bog down his overall fire in the locker room with his much younger teammates, thus the captaincy appeared not to be in the offing.
At an initial glance, trading for the veteran forward was going to be tough. With three full seasons at $4.6 million per season remaining on his contract, given his dwindling offensive statistics, not to mention his list of ten NHL teams he rejected being traded to, his contract was considered to be a bit of an albatross, particularly for a player who requested to be traded, a version of the ‘horse out of the barn’ from a leverage standpoint.
The seemingly probable option was a compliance buyout, in which the Blue Jackets, who had their full allotment of two amnesty buyouts available to them, would pay 2/3rds of Umberger’s remaining salary over the course of double the years, in this case, over six seasons which would equate to a per year amount of $1.6 million per season. However, for a small market team, particularly one that has struggled with attendance the prior few seasons, this option was a bit of a financial constraint.
However, Kekalainen once again displayed the creativity and boldness to garner a trade and was able to contact new Flyers GM Ron Hextall who was willing to part with Hartnell and the trade was consummated.
In Hartnell, the Blue Jackets do acquire a feisty player who can easily get under the opponents skin, one who has good offensive instincts and is a solid finisher to the net. On the minus side, Hartnell is also prone to some questionable antics and can incur a plethora of penalty minutes, having averaged over 100 penalty minutes for nine of his 12 full seasons in the NHL, although extrapolating the lockout-shortened season of 2013, he was well on his way to 100 and narrowly missed 100 penalty minutes for the other two full seasons. He has also averaged over 22 goals and 24 assists during his career, capped off by a 37-goal campaign in 2011-12.
As to his contract, Hartnell has five years remaining on his contract at $4.75 million per season, so his annual salary is only slightly higher than Umberger’s.
However, for the upstart Blue Jackets, Hartnell epitomizes the direction and type of style the organization intends to play under Messrs. Davidson and Kekalainen. Acquiring Hartnell also allows Kekalainen to more slowly groom his cadre of talented young forwards drafted in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, namely Alexander Wennberg, Kirby Rychel, Marko Dano and Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Finally, Kekalainen deftly avoids a compliance buyout, one which particularly to some ardent Ohio State fans who occupy the Central Ohio area would have had some consternation with. However, as this new fan-base must be quick to realize, that – his Ohio State playing days – was college, this is professional hockey. Davidson and Kekalainen didn’t view this factor nor should have they – this is a business, one with the ultimate prize, one of claiming and raising the Stanley Cup. While not the type of trade that cements this quest, it is one that lays the foundation for continued success for the young Blue Jackets organization.